In unprecedented move, Sarah Gonzales-McLinn has 25 years cut from 50-year murder sentence; court agrees trial attorney was ineffective
photo by: Dylan Lysen/Lawrence Journal-World
A woman serving a life sentence for murder received a reduction of 25 years in her sentence Tuesday in Douglas County District Court.
Sarah Gonzales-McLinn, now 26, was sentenced in 2015 to the “hard 50” — 50 years in prison without the possibility of parole — for the Jan. 17, 2014, murder of 52-year-old Harold “Hal” Sasko. Sasko was the owner of Cici’s Pizza in Lawrence and lived with Gonzales-McLinn at the time of his death.
In 2015, a jury convicted Gonzales-McLinn, who was 19 at the time of the incident, of murdering Sasko. Evidence at trial indicated that she had drugged Sasko with sleeping pills, bound his hands and feet while he was unconscious, then cut his throat, nearly decapitating him.
Judge Amy Hanley approved an agreement between Gonzales-McLinn’s attorney, Jonathan Sternberg, and the Douglas County District Attorney’s Office to void the original sentence and re-sentence her to the “hard 25,” which allows for the eligibility for parole after 25 years. Along with the new sentence, Hanley credited Gonzales-McLinn with more than seven years of prison time already served.
District Attorney Suzanne Valdez said the agreement meant Gonzales-McLinn would be eligible for parole when she is 45 rather than 70. She said the victim’s family, who provided comment through letters to the court, consented to the agreement.
Before receiving the new sentence from Hanley, Gonzales-McLinn told the court through tears that she regretted the incident, causing a “chain-reaction of suffering.” She also said she was dedicated to growing and being a better person.
“I wish with every fiber of my being that things were different,” she told the court.
The court also heard from members of Gonzales-McLinn’s family, who argued that she was the victim of abuse and that even the reduced sentence was an injustice to her.
The agreement between the two parties acknowledges that Gonzales-McLinn’s counsel for the 2015 trial, attorney Carl Cornwell, was ineffective. It also allows for her to receive a sentence recommended in a plea agreement — the hard 25 — that was initially rejected under Cornwell’s guidance.
Hanley said she agreed the counsel was ineffective and believed Gonzales-McLinn would have taken the original plea agreement if she was properly informed about the repercussions of a hard 50 sentence.
As the Journal-World previously reported, Gonzales-McLinn appealed the conviction on the grounds that Cornwell’s counsel was ineffective for failing to properly inform her that the offered plea deal would have cut her mandatory sentence in half and for not pursuing a “battered woman syndrome” defense during trial.
With the agreement and re-sentencing, Gonzales-McLinn dropped her remaining appeal claim.
Sternberg told the court that the joint motion between him and the DA’s office to have the sentence downgraded was virtually unheard of in Kansas but was supported by federal case law. Valdez agreed the joint motion was unique for Kansas courts.
“This is unprecedented under Kansas law, but is entirely legal,” Valdez said.
They also said the agreement allows for closure in the case, rather than setting up for another trial. Hanley said she agreed another trial would drag out the case for years and add to the suffering already experienced by the parties involved.
While Sasko’s daughter wrote a letter to the court explaining the suffering she experienced after her father’s brutal murder, the family ultimately supported the new sentence.
Tommy Sasko, an older brother of Hal Sasko, provided a letter to the court speaking for the family, including Hal Sasko’s 11 siblings. In a letter, Tommy Sasko said Hal was a kind and generous man, similar to the rest of his family, and allowing Gonzales-McLinn into his home was an example of that.
But he said he also believed Gonzales-McLinn’s counsel during the trial was ineffective and was harmful to her. He noted that he was a financial backer of his brother’s ownership of the restaurant, and he lost $200,000 after the murder. Even with that in mind, he said he still supports the new sentencing and bringing closure to the case.
However, Amanda Sasko, Hal’s daughter, said in a separate letter to the court that the murder of her father ruined her life. Amanda, who was 17 at the time of the killing, said her father was taken from her as she was close to graduating from high school.
She criticized theories that Gonzales-McLinn was the victim of abuse, leading to the murder. She said Gonzales-McLinn was not the victim in the case, yet she was getting a second chance through a new sentencing.
Amanda Sasko also said she still lives with sorrow years after the incident and has nightmares about losing her father.
“You’ve crippled so many things in my life and you don’t even realize it,” Amanda Sasko said in the letter.
But Gonzales-McLinn’s family offered a different account of the events.
Michelle Gonzales, her mother, told the court that Sasko was grooming Gonzales-McLinn for sexual abuse and suggested he was committing human trafficking through his relationship with her. She said her daughter’s actions were the result of “unending abuse” and criticized Cornwell for not using the “battered woman syndrome” defense in the case.
Additionally, Gonzales-McLinn’s aunt, Ramona Pritchett, claimed Gonzales-McLinn was the victim of abuse and that the new sentence still was wrong. She said Gonzales-McLinn has not had a true advocate to support her and she still wouldn’t in the future when her time has been served. She also said Gonzales-McLinn is not guaranteed to be granted parole after 25 years and could be in prison even longer.
She then said the justice system failed Gonzales-McLinn, telling the court it was “not an administrator of justice,” but Hanley stopped her comments for disparaging the court. The woman then said society had failed Gonzales-McLinn.
“Someone who has been traumatized is never really free of abuse,” she said. “She remains in prison and she finally realizes we all, as a society, are her abusers.”
After her comments, Sternberg told the court he did not agree with her comments that justice was not being done in the case. Hanley said she also disagreed that Gonzales-McLinn did not have advocates in the case, crediting Sternberg for his service to her as counsel.
• March 20, 2015 — Jury finds McLinn guilty of first-degree murder
• March 18, 2015 — Murder trial: McLinn describes killing Sasko in police interview
• March 16, 2015 — McLinn trial: Jury selection begins in CiCi’s Pizza owner slaying case